Will the metaverse be entertaining? Ask South Korea

SEOUL – In a vast studio outside Seoul, technicians huddled in front of monitors, watching cartoon K-pop singers – at least one of whom had a tail – dance in front of a psychedelic backdrop. A woman with fairy wings fluttered by.

Everyone on screen was real, sort of. The singers had human counterparts in the studio, isolated in cubicles, with headsets on their faces and joysticks in both hands. Immersed in a virtual world, they were competing to become part of (hopefully) the next big South Korean girl band.

The stakes were high. A few of their competitors, after failing to make the cut, had been dropped into bubbling lava.

This, some say, is the future of entertainment in the metaverse, brought to you by South Korea, the world’s testing ground for all things technological.

“There are a lot of people who want to get into the metaverse, but it hasn’t reached critical mass, users-wise, yet,” said Korea University School of Media and Communication associate professor Jung Yoon-hyuk. “Other places want to venture into the metaverse, but to be successful, you need to have good content. In South Korea, that content is K-pop.”

In the metaverse – whatever that is, exactly – the normal rules do not apply. And the South Korean entertainment industry is delving into the possibilities, confident that fans will happily follow.

K-pop groups have had virtual counterparts for years. Karina, a real-life member of the band Aespa, can be seen on YouTube chatting with her digital self, “ae-Karina”, in an exchange that comes off as seamlessly as late-night TV.

South Korean company Kakao Entertainment wants to take things further. It is working with a mobile gaming company, Netmarble, to develop a K-pop band called Mave that exists only in cyberspace, where its four artificial members will interact with real-life fans around the world.

Kakao is also behind Girl’s Re:verse, a K-pop-in-the-metaverse show, whose debut episode on streaming platforms in January was viewed more than one million times in three days. For both projects, Kakao is contemplating album releases, brand endorsements, video games and digital comics, among other things.

Compared with their South Korean counterparts, media companies in the United States have only engaged in “light experimentation” with the metaverse so far, said Mr Andrew Wallenstein, president and chief media analyst of Variety Intelligence Platform.

Countries like South Korea “are often looked at like a test bed for how the future is going to pan out”, Mr Wallenstein said. “If any trend is going to move from overseas to the US, I would put South Korea at the front of the line in terms of who is likeliest to be that springboard.”

South Korea’s experiments with virtual entertainment date back at least 25 years, to the brief life span of an artificial singer called Adam. A child of the 1990s, he was a pixelated creature of computer graphics, with sweepy eye-covering bangs and a raspy voice that tried a bit too hard to sound sexy. Adam disappeared from the public eye after releasing an album in 1998.

But digital creations like him, or it, have been a hallmark of South Korean popular culture for a generation. Today, South Korean “virtual influencers” such as Rozy and Lucy have Instagram followings in the six figures and promote very real brands, including Chevrolet and Gucci.


Business Asia
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